As we enter the final season for the Big 12 as we know it, Missouri is entrenched in the role of No. 2 in the North Division, the primary challenger to Nebraska. Can they feed off the underdog role and win a division, or even, dare I say, a conference title? Here are what I think are three key issues that will determine this.
The Gabbert Question
Junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert certainly had an eventful 2009 as he took over for Chase Daniel, the school’s all-time leading passer. It was certainly an eventful year.
His first four games, against weaker competition: 11 TDs, no interceptions, team goes 4-0. Next four games, beginning with the Nebraska game in which he suffered an ankle injury: four TDs, seven picks, team goes 1-3. Last four regular-season games: eight TDs, no picks, team goes 3-1. Then came a poor game in the bad bowl loss to Navy.
The Gabbert Question isn’t so much will he succeed or fail, but rather how good can he be. Will he be merely a serviceable quarterback who racks up stats against the weaker opponents and then falters against big boy defenses? Or will he be the big-time quarterback who wins games with his arm, his legs and his composure? Where the answer lies will likely determine the giddiness or grouchiness of Tiger fans on Saturdays this fall.
Tiger fans are understandably excited about the potential of a healthy Gabbert. This year should be a telling indicator. The early guess here is Tiger fans will be pleased.
Improving the Defense
Last year’s Tiger defense was average to below average, ranking eighth and seventh in points allowed and yards allowed, respectively, in conference play. However, the pass defense was a severe problem, ranking dead last in passing yards allowed in conference games.
I’m hopeful the Tiger coaches can figure out ways to fix this, possibly rolling the dice with more press coverage as opposed to playing way off the line to protect against the deep ball.
Besides that, my simplistic way to help out that pass defense starts with a strong pass rush. If the sensational Aldon Smith (11.5 sacks in 2009) can make opposing quarterbacks even more uncomfortable, that struggling secondary could look a lot better.
The Midseason Exam
As we know, a team’s success is often tied to the breaks of the schedule. Missouri faces a stern four-game midseason exam that will likely determine if this is another good-but-not-great year, and if the Tigers will compete for a North Division title.
Starting Oct. 16, Missouri plays at Texas A&M (Home of the 12th Man), Oklahoma at home in the Homecoming game (yikes!), at Nebraska (North championship game?) and at Texas Tech (likely a 50-50 swing game).
During this stretch, right in the height of the glorious, crisp Midwestern fall, these Tigers will play a parade of crucial games. Many other intriguing games dot the schedule, starting with the opener against Illinois in St. Louis. Football has arrived. Here we go.